Lists and databases of popular children’s books were used to identify relevant books with a sample of 150 electronic books analyzed. ANOVA was used to compare books that had a central focus on fruits, vegetables, or gardening vs. those that had a background focus.
Central themes of fruits, vegetables, and gardens were found in 116 books. Of these, 25% contained fruit themes; 65% fruit and vegetable themes; and 55% fruit, vegetable and garden themes; while 2% had fruit, vegetable, garden and nutrition themes. Books with a central focus had significantly more pages including a combination of fruits, vegetables, and gardens compared to those that only contained single mentions (8.84 +/- 4.41 vs. 4.00 +/- 2.93 pages, p = 0.000). Although characters were always positive towards fruit, characters in multiple books showed negative attitudes towards vegetables.
Application To Child Nutrition Professionals
Although electronic children’s books provide an inexpensive resource for nutrition programs, they appear to emphasize fruits over vegetables and other foods. School staff incorporating electronic children’s books into the curriculum to support nutrition education through gardening should consider collaborating with nutrition program staff to develop appropriate discussion questions so that the nutrition content presented more closely aligns with dietary guidance.
Research has suggested that gardening may be an effective strategy for encouraging vegetable consumption among young children (Savoie-Roskos, Wengren & Deward, 2017; Triador, Farmer, Maximova, Willos & Kootenay, 2014), and that children’s books may promote healthy eating habits among children by building vocabulary, deepening knowledge, shaping values, and changing perceptions of the unfamiliar, including fruits and vegetables (Horst & Houston-Price, 2015). Although gardening is often a part of nutrition education in elementary and preschool grades, the transition to remote learning that occurred due to the COVID-19 pandemic caused many interruptions in traditional learning. This shift to online learning prompted creative restructuring of youth gardening into at-home and virtual projects (Wisconsin School Garden Network, 2020). Closures also reduced access to public libraries which typically provide books and resources to supplement school garden curricula. Thus, many educators and parents were limited to books on hand or freely available electronic books.
Although both hard and electronic copies of children’s books about food are widely available, there have been mixed results from research about the quality and accuracy of nutrition content related to school gardening and nutrition education, particularly books intended for young children (Byrne & Nitzke, 2000; Matvienko, 2016). One study of 104 picture books published between 2000 and 2016 for children ages 4 to 8 years found that only 50% featured a specific eating behavior, while the others discussed table manners, food related emotions, and lifestyle patterns (Matvienko, 2016). Another study reviewed 100 popular children’s picture books (“Scholastic’s Collection of 100 Favorite Books”) in which food was incorporated in both text and pictures (Goldman & Descartes, 2015). Sixty-nine books contained food in both text and pictures; 21 books contained food as the primary theme (i.e. food was integral to the plot), and the remaining 48 books mentioned food in the text or pictures, but not as part of the main story (Matvienko, 2016). Fruit was the most common theme in 57% of the 21 books while vegetables were the least common occurring in 35%. Another study of 114 books reported 199 food mentions, in which 20% of the mentions were for fruits and 11% were for vegetables (Byrne & Nitzke. 2000), suggesting a lack of enthusiasm for vegetables. None of these studies examined themes of gardening or growing fruits and vegetables, although the American Farm Bureau maintains a list of agricultural education books that includes e-books and lesson plans on these topics (American Farm Bureau, 2020). There is limited research on the quality of nutrition information in freely available books and electronic books that could support schools conducting school gardening programs virtually, at home, or in limited resource communities.
Thus, the purpose of this research project was to evaluate how free, electronic gardening-themed books for young children (ages 3-8 years) compared with United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Dietary Guidelines and recommended nutritional messages and to identify ways these electronic books could be used most effectively to support classroom gardening and prompt discussions about nutrition with this age group.
This project did not involve human subjects and did not require approval by the university’s Institutional Review Board. Popular children’s books were identified based on Scholastics’ list of “100 Greatest Books for Kids”, recommendations from librarians at local public and university libraries, as well as sources of NoveList and NoveList K-8, which is a database of book recommendations for library workers and elementary school teachers. Primary searc databases such as EBSCOhost eBook Comprehensive Academic Collection, New Jersey State Library, Child Care and Early Education Research Connections, and the Bergen County Cooperative Library System were also used. It is important to note that although these electronic books were found on the east coast of the United States of America, the authors represented a variety of regions and growing climates. Each book was searched using key words such as “gardening,” “nutrition,” and “fruits and/or vegetables” with an emphasis on books that were appropriate for young children, ages 3 to 8 years, and were available as free, electronic books. Books were determined to be appropriate for young children based on the age or grade level indicated on the books themselves or the reading lists that were searched.
Coding of Text and Illustrations
The coding approach was guided by previous research examining food-themed books for children (Byrne & Nitzke, 2000; Goldman & Descartes, 2015; Matvienko, 2016). Each book was analyzed page by page by a single reviewer to classify each depiction of fruits and vegetables, gardening, and nutrition in both text and illustration. Covers and title pages were observed for these trends as well. Book contents were identified by fruit (e.g. apples, oranges) and vegetables (e.g. leafy greens, cabbage), gardening (for the goal of healthy eating), and nutrition messages. USDA’s MyPlate (USDA, 2020a) and Dietary Guidelines for children (USDA, 2015) were used to identify healthy versus unhealthy messages and suggest opportunities for inclusion in staff-developed nutrition programs.
Books were also coded based on whether fruits, vegetables, gardening, or nutrition were briefly mentioned but not the main point of the story, or were discussed as a theme throughout the entirety of the story and as such, appeared on almost every page. For each book that was considered a “mention”, pages were coded as “central” if fruits, vegetables, gardening, or nutrition were found in both an illustration and text on that page, or “background” if they were found only in an illustration and not mentioned in the text. For example, for each book that was categorized as a “mention,” if a fruit was identified in the text yet not shown in an illustration, the page would be coded as “background.” If a fruit was mentioned in the text of a book classified as “mention” and was shown in an illustration, the book would then fall under the “central” category. Some books mentioned only fruits, vegetables, nutrition, or gardening (“single mention”), while others mentioned two or more of these in combination (“combined mention”).
Statistical Analysis Used for Coding
Codes and number of pages that focused on single and combined “mentions” of fruit, vegetables, nutrition, and gardening were recorded on a spreadsheet. Data were processed using SPSS (v. 22) to generate descriptive statistics and assess patterns. ANOVA was used to compare “mention” books that had a “central” focus on fruits, vegetables, or gardening with those that had a “background” focus on these themes.
Results and Discussion
A total of 17,189 books was found from all databases searched; of these, 935 books were relevant and suitable for children 3 to 8 years of age. Of the 935 books, 785 books were not accessible online so the final sample focused on 150 books freely accessible online as e-books and PDFs. The main characters of the stories included fictional humans, anthropomorphic animals and objects, fictional creatures and objects, or both.
Of the 150 books, 116 books were “theme” books and 34 books were “mention” books containing one or more themes of fruits/vegetables, gardening, and nutrition. Of the 116
“theme” books, 25% included only fruit themes, 65% both fruit and vegetable themes, 55% fruit, vegetable, and gardening themes, while 2% contained themes related to fruits, vegetables, gardening, and nutrition. Of the 34 “mention” books, 82% included fruits, 47% both fruits and vegetables, 26% fruits, vegetables, and gardening, while 0% contained themes related to fruits, vegetables, gardening, and nutrition.
ANOVA was used to compare number of pages in books that had a “central” focus on fruits, vegetables, or gardening versus those that had a “background” focus on these themes. Because only one page specifically focused on nutrition, this was not included in analysis. All values are reported as means +/- standard deviations, unless otherwise noted. Both categories of books (“central” and “background” focus) had significantly more pages including a combination of fruits, vegetables, and gardens compared to those that contained only single “mentions”. Books with a “central” focus had 8.84 +/- 4.46 vs. 4.00 +/- 2.93 pages, while books with a “background” focus had vegetables most likely grouped together in the context of the mentioning produce in general and/or gardening (2.26 +/- 2.35 vs. 1.36 +/- 1.39 pages) with mentions of specific vegetables less common.
All books that mentioned fruits, vegetables, and healthy eating described in messages were assessed for alignment with the Dietary Guidelines (USDA, 2015, 2020a). Table 2 depicts general examples of positive and negative behaviors towards books with common messages about vegetables and healthy dietary messages. Of the 150 books analyzed, 7 were found to incorporate both healthy dietary themes and vegetables in which a majority of characters’ behaviors toward vegetables were negative, while 143 books discussed fruits in a positive way. Of the 143 books, 6 were observed to use fruits in dessert-related situations. Positive behaviors that were emphasized included learning to choose and grow produce for good health. Negative behaviors that accompanied these stories included quickly judging vegetables as unappetizing and fearing that healthy foods would not taste good. Conversely, book characters always indicated their excitement toward fruits prepared in a dessert.
Conclusions and Applications
Similar to previous findings (Byrne & Nitzke, 2000; Matvienko, 2016), these data show that fruits are mentioned more throughout children’s books in comparison to vegetables or the topic of nutrition. Given that nutrition is a more complex topic, it is not surprising that books for young children focus on aspects of healthy eating instead. Research supports the use of theory-based nutrition education programs for children that focus on specific behaviors and provide knowledge along with behavior change skills, experiences in growing and preparing food, goal setting, and opportunities for active learning (Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, et al., 2018). Books can be used to introduce new types of produce and ways to grow and prepare it. They can also set the stage for active learning activities, such as gardening or tasting new foods, or spark discussions about how food is produced and prepared, colors and textures of different types of produce, and health benefits.
Eating-related themes and behaviors and attitudes toward healthy and non-healthy foods were found in this study’s sample of books (N =150) with most agreeing with Dietary Guidelines (USDA, 2015, 2020a). These recommend that children limit the amount of desserts and high sugar foods consumed; only a few books (n = 6) mentioned fruits in the context of a dessert that could be higher in fat and sugar, such as pie. The majority of books (n = 130) encouraged consuming fruits in healthy ways, which is in agreement with the dietary guidance recommending children consume 2 cups of fruits a day (USDA, 2015, 2020a). The books that discussed fruits in healthy ways had few negative behaviors and many positive behaviors toward fruit.
Dietary and MyPlate guidelines also indicate that children should consume 2 ½ cups of vegetables per day (USDA, 2015, 2020a). Of the 150 books that were analyzed, 7 were found to have healthy messages regarding vegetables yet these also contained negative behaviors toward consuming or growing vegetables, similar to findings from Matvienko et al. (2016). Additionally, research done by Byrne and Nitzke (2000) showed that vegetables were not the most popular theme for children’s books with a conclusion that this may encourage negative feelings about vegetables.
Research about the effectiveness of electronic versus printed books on learning outcomes (e.g. learning to understand a story and recognize details for elementary-aged children or learning new words at the pre-school age) among young children has been mixed and has largely focused on topics related to literacy rather than nutrition (Bus, Takas & Kegel., 2015; Munzer, 2019). However, their low cost and availability, particularly when libraries are inaccessible such as during the COVID pandemic, may increase the likelihood that parents and teachers will use them. Teachers and school nutrition professionals can also use electronic books to incorporate nutrition into the classroom through virtual or traditional learning. In addition, a team of school staff consisting of educators and those with nutrition expertise can help parents extend that learning at home with provision of a reading list of free, nutrition-themed books and discussion questions. An example is shown in Table 2. Teachers can encourage their students to take away mindful, healthy messages from books about vegetables by using storybook characters’ behaviors to stimulate class discussion. For example, acknowledging that vegetables have different textures, colors, and flavors that are at first unfamiliar to book characters can lead the way for a positive discussion of vegetable variety. School nutrition staff can work with teachers and parents to develop discussion questions and provide interactive encounters with vegetables to increase familiarity. They can also use books to incorporate nutrition across the curriculum as part of reading class and to reinforce hands-on learning activities such as gardening in the classroom or at home. Finally, books that describe agriculture across the United States and around the globe can be used by school nutrition staff and teachers to introduce students to diverse cultures, ecosystems, and food crops.
Thus, while the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 and transition to remote learning have brought unique challenges, new opportunities for creative online learning that can encourage healthy eating among children and their families in communities where traditional books and libraries are not accessible are presented.
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Lilliana Geraldes, MS is a Graduate Student and Kim Spaccarotella, PhD is a Lecturer in Biology at Kean University in Union, New Jersey.
Purpose / Objectives
Though school gardening programs and curricular activities like reading have been used to enhance nutrition education, little is known about the quality of nutrition messages in freely available electronic books for young children. The purpose of this project was to compare the nutrition messages in these books with the United States Department of Agriculture’s nutrition guidance for children.